Within the Autistic community, there is theory that we speak about as though it is commonplace in human lives. In part, this is the double empathy problem in practice. However, not all theory that we speak of is known by wider society. Thus, it is my intention to demystify a small part of that theoretical knowledge in this article.
What is the double empathy problem?
The double empathy problem is a theoretical basis to explain why people with vastly different experiences of the world find it difficult to empathise with each other. It states that individuals and groups with differing cultural and life experiences struggle to understand the experience of the other due to having no point of reference within that opposing worldview.
How does the double empathy problem relate to autism?
Autism is broadly viewed by the wider world as a diagnostic category. It has been framed as a disorder affecting social communication that is pervasive and lifelong in nature. Autistic people, however, see autism differently. Autistic people view autism as an abstract concept with the only tangible aspect of it being the existence of Autistic people. That is to say, autism does not exist, only Autistic people exist.
Within this worldview, being Autistic has been conceptualised as an identity bound within the remit of the neurodiversity paradigm. As opposed to being a disorder, being Autistic is a natural variation of the human mind that prevents Autistic people from performing neurotypically, i.e. we can not assimilate yo neuronormative standards.
Consequently, perceived deficits in social reciprocity and communication are, in fact, the double empathy problem in practice. Because we are a minority group, our ability to communicate and empathise with others is viewed as deficient as opposed to just “different”.
Why is the double empathy problem important to Autistic people?
The double empathy problem allows us to demonstrate the fundamental power imbalance between Autistic and neurotypical individuals and groups. Autistic people’s position as a minority group results in our existence being pathologised and medicalised, while neurotypical embodiment is seen as something to be desired.
The double empathy problem highlights the exclusionary and oppressive nature of neuronormative thinking while highlighting the issues with cross-cultural and cross-neurotype communication and social reciprocity. Thus, rather than view Autistic people as anti-social, and deficient in communication and empathy, it would be more accurate to say that we have differences in these areas.
Why are Autistic people different?
Due to differences in brain functioning, Autistic people experience and process information differently. As a result, Autistic people utilise and understand language differently, resulting in the evolution of an Autistic culture and sociality (AuSociality). These fundamental differences in our use and understanding of language, sociality, and processing of information constitute a cultural divide that prevents neurotypical society from truly empathising with our experience.